London, Sept. 4: The onerous task of writing the biography of the Nobel Prize-winning author, Sir Vidia Naipaul — one of the most sought after yet challenging jobs that could be taken up by an author — has fallen to 36-year-old Patrick French.
This was confirmed today by French, who predicted the task could take him “between five and 10 years”; by Lady Naipaul who said her husband “liked Patrick who has a moral centre and no malice”; and by Naipaul’s literary agent of 23 years, Gillon Aitken, who declared himself “very pleased with the choice”.
However, since everyone knows that Naipaul can be an awkward customer, especially with those closest to him, a friend of French joked: “The poor fellow has been handed a poisoned chalice.”
Unlike other writers who were desperate to write Naipaul’s biography, French did not have to pursue his quarry. It was Naipaul who was hugely impressed with French’s chairmanship of a literary panel and with his biography of Sir Francis Younghusband, the imperial adventurer who invaded Tibet in 1903 only to become a mystic.
It was Naipaul who approached French last year. French became an even more glamorous figure in Naipaul’s eyes by appearing to hesitate. “I thought about it for six months but this is the big literary biography of our time,” explained French.
Naipaul, who is 70, is of Indian origin but born in Trinidad, has lived in Britain since he came to Oxford in the 1950s, and has an impressive body of work behind him, including travel books and novels, including the 1971 Booker Prize-winning In a Free State. Some literary critics hold him to be “the finest writer in the English language”.
He won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, something which his admirers felt was overdue. He thanked the two countries which have shaped him — Britain and India — but made no mention of Trinidad, not least because he was glad to escape from the Caribbean island.
Naipaul exceptionally allowed Ismail Merchant to adapt The Mystic Masseur, set in Trinidad, into a feature film. He has apparently not seen the movie, has no intention of doing so and regards the decision to allow Merchant to make the film a mistake.
What has involved Naipaul in serious controversy in recent years are his critical comments on trends in modern Islam, which have won him few friends in the Muslim world. The word “curmudgeonly” has also been used to describe some of his recent eccentric escapades.
He was the star of a gathering of writers in Neemrana, in northern India, where he told one woman author, who claimed her sensibilities were informed by imperial oppression, that she should sit down since she was talking rubbish. One Indian newspaper called Naipaul’s behaviour “monstrous, lethal and, well, obnoxious”. The conference was deemed a great success.
One of the biggest upsets in Naipaul’s life was caused by the publication in 1998 of Sir Vidia’s Shadow, by Paul Theroux, his former best friend turned worst enemy.
“Patrick has no malice,” emphasised Lady Naipaul, formerly the Pakistani columnist Nadira Alvi, who is generally regarded as having brought personal happiness to her husband since their marriage in 1996. “Patrick is unique in that I have never known him to say anything disparaging about anyone.”
Both she and her husband felt that French possessed great integrity, a very good understanding of Naipaul’s books and of both Indian and British cultures — “my husband is Indian but not of India, he writes in English but is not English” — and “a deep aesthetic sense”.
Pointing out that Naipaul had been approached by several potential biographers, Lady Naipaul said: “I have been fighting off these people. Somehow they were not quite right. My husband is very tired and has been exhausted since the Nobel Prize, and has been saying, ‘I don’t have many years left.’ But he feels a sense of relief at having found the right person. He likes Patrick and you open up, don’t you, to someone you like.”
According to French, writers whose names had figured as potential biographers had included Ian Buruma, Pankaj Mishra, Tarun Tejpal, Sunil Khilnani and Andrew Lycett. Clearly sympathetic to Naipaul, French dismissed Theroux’s highly readable but vitriolic account as a “caricature”.
French has many useful Indian connections, having helped Arundhati Roy to find a literary agent for The God of Small Things, which went on to win the Booker Prize. French’s account of events leading to the partition, Liberty or Death, is highly regarded and has shown his capacity for rigorous research.
French will have access to all of Naipaul’s papers, including documents lodged at Tulse University in the US. He also intends to travel in the footsteps of Naipaul, starting with India in October — “and he has been all over the world”.
“This is an incredible opportunity, the biggest literary biography of our time,” enthused French. “The thing about Naipaul is that he is obsessed with the truth, some of it very painful. I have already had several conversations with him. I want to do this properly. I have not yet sold the book but perhaps it will go to HarperCollins.”
Given the scale of the undertaking, French could easily demand and get at least a million pounds for the biography.